‘We’re getting better at it because its in our DNA’ - Royal Navy commander talks about drug busts...

Commodore Peter Sparkes, commander of the Portsmouth flotilla
Commodore Peter Sparkes, commander of the Portsmouth flotilla
Portsmouth Divers from the Royal Navy at London City Airport. Picture: Royal Navy

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The Royal Navy is getting better at raiding drug gangs and stopping deadly narcotics from reaching the streets of the UK.

That is the verdict given by the commander of Portsmouth’s naval flotilla, Commodore Peter Sparkes.

In an exclusive interview with The News, Cdre Sparkes revealed the navy’s stranglehold on the illegal smuggling of drugs was intensifying, with tighter links between the force and allied nations helping to clamp down on drug trafficking routes worldwide.

The statements come after The News revealed that in almost two years the navy had helped seize almost £1bn worth of narcotics in raids against gangs, winning praise for their efforts.

‘If I was a member of the British public I would be massively reassured that the Royal Navy is absolutely delivering on counter-narcotic operations around the world every day of the year making our shores safer to enable us to protect our children better,’ said the commodore.

‘We’re getting better at it – I think we’re better at it because it is in our DNA to be deployed and doing a wide operational task.

‘So if you look at the ships we have out in The Gulf at the moment, HMS St Albans had a drugs bust on her way out in the western Mediterranean.

‘A month later HMS Richmond, who she just relieved, had another drugs bust on the way back from the Gulf in the western Mediterranean.’

Since 2011, the navy has been involved in 36 major drugs busts across the world, snatching hundreds of millions of pounds worth of drugs from smugglers.

However, Cdre Sparkes said the drug gangs are becoming more audacious with every passing year.

He explained they are constantly adapting their smuggling techniques and said the navy and its allies were in a constant battle to keep up with the pace of change.

Gangs, he said, were using everything from planes and yachts, to ‘drug mules’ – people who will carry the narcotics by hand.

‘There was much talk a few years ago about Pablo Escobar in Colombia using submarines and they have been shown in open source to be out there,’ added Cdre Sparkes.

‘We have the capability to intercept those submarines and if necessary sink them.

‘We would take every action necessary to defend ourselves.’

However, more commonly the gangs will use powerful speedboats called ‘go-fasts’.

These vessels are capable of outrunning even the navy’s fastest warships and can prove tough to intercept.

So, in order to combat this, the navy uses helicopters and specially-trained Royal Marine snipers to ‘compel the gang members to stop’.

‘It can be exhilarating stuff chasing boats which are doing 50 knots with helicopters,’ he said.

‘There are a number of instances where a Marine sniper has shot through the engine block of the outboard engines, in the hover, at range,’

He added there have been instances where drug smugglers have attempted to defend their cargo from the authorities.

However, he explained that there had been no such attempts made against the Royal Navy in recent memory.

‘Generally, if you pitch up in a frigate, with a Lynx helicopter and a .50 calibre machine gun hanging out of one door and a sniper out of the other, they’re quite content,’ he said.

The navy works alongside other nations, as well as with the UK Border Force and Royal Fleet Auxiliary, in oceans and seas across the globe in the war against drugs. The vast majority of the busts have taken place in the Caribbean.

Despite having numerous success stories, Cdre Sparkes said that tackling organised crime is a complex mission.

‘Most countries will try to wage a war against drugs and will do so in their own way,’ he said.

‘The challenge that we face is jurisdictions. That’s the most complex challenge that we face in a maritime environment, whether it be piracy, organised crime or people smuggling.’

Often, the navy will work alongside the US Coastguard when operating in the Caribbean. But there are times where operations are delayed while the navy waits for permission from other authorities to begin its strike which can be frustrating, said Cdre Sparkes.

‘You have intelligence which tells you where they’re going to be and what likely substances are on board, he said. ‘So you can intercept the ship but you can’t always board right away.

‘So for example you may have a ship where it’s flagged to a different state and you may need the permission of that state to board.

‘So you might have to wait for a couple of days for this permission to come where as you and I would want to be straight in there, knocking down doors and finding the drugs. It requires tact, guile and insight to be able to achieve some of these.’

In spite of all the successful raids revealed by the navy, Cdre Sparkes hinted this was just the tip of the iceberg.

‘What we do is generally at the higher level of security and therefore we must do some of our business covertly,’ he said.

‘It’s frustrating that people don’t necessarily know what we’re doing. We wish we could be able to tell people more but we probably wouldn’t be successful at what we do if we were to tell everyone of all our successes in detail.’

Portsmouth warships HMS Richmond and HMS St Albans were two of the three ships involved in last year’s £600m haul snatched from smugglers.

St Albans is currently serving in The Gulf supporting French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle French as it launches air strikes against Isil in Syria. The Type 23 frigate is due to return to Portsmouth in summer.